- John Kiriakou
spent 14 years at the CIA as an analyst and case officer. Kiriakou exposed the Bush-era torture program and became the only official jailed in connection with it. In 2007, he became the first CIA official to publicly confirm the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding. In January 2013, he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years after pleading guilty to confirming the identity of a covert officer to a reporter, who did not publish it. His memoir is titled Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror. Kiriakou was released from prison last week, but remains under house arrest for three months.
In a broadcast exclusive interview, we spend the hour with John Kiriakou, a retired CIA agent who has just been released from prison after blowing the whistle on the George W. Bush administration’s torture program. In 2007, Kiriakou became the first CIA official to publicly confirm and detail the agency’s use of waterboarding. In January 2013, he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. Under a plea deal, Kiriakou admitted to a single count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by revealing the identity of a covert officer involved in the torture program to a freelance reporter, who did not publish it. In return, prosecutors dropped charges brought under the Espionage Act. Kiriakou is the only official to be jailed for any reason relating to CIA torture. Supporters say he was unfairly targeted in the Obama administration’s crackdown on government whistleblowers. A father of five, Kiriakou spent 14 years at the CIA as an analyst and case officer, leading the team that found high-ranking al-Qaeda member Abu Zubaydah in 2002. He joins us from his home in Virginia, where he remains under house arrest for three months while completing his sentence. In a wide-ranging interview, Kiriakou says, “I would do it all over again,” after seeing the outlawing of torture after he came forward. Kiriakou also responds to the details of the partially released Senate Committee Report on the CIA’s use of torture; argues NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden did a “great national service,” but will not get a fair trial if he returns to the United States; and describes the conditions inside FCI Loretto, the federal prison where he served his sentence and saw prisoners die with “terrifying frequency” from lack of proper medical care.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, a Democracy Now! radio and television broadcast exclusive. We spend the hour with John Kiriakou, the retired CIA agent who blew the whistle on torture. He’s just been released from prison. He’ll join us from his home in Virginia, where he remains under house arrest while finishing his two-and-a-half-year sentence. Shortly after his release last week, John Kiriakou tweeted a picture of himself at home with his smiling children, along with a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Free at last. Free at least. Thank God Almighty. I’m free at last.”
In January 2013, Kiriakou was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. Under a plea deal, he admitted to a single count of violating the Intelligence Identities Protection Act by revealing the identity of a covert officer involved in the rendition, detention and interrogation program to a freelance reporter, who didn’t publish it. In return, prosecutors dropped charges against Kiriakou brought under the Espionage Act. In 2007, John Kiriakou became the first CIA official to publicly confirm and detail the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding when he spoke to ABC’s Brian Ross.
JOHN KIRIAKOU: At the time, I felt that waterboarding was something that we needed to do. And as time has passed, and as September 11th has—you know, has moved farther and farther back into history, I think I’ve changed my mind. And I think that waterboarding is probably something that we shouldn’t be in the business of doing.
BRIAN ROSS: Why do you say that now?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Because we’re Americans, and we’re better than that.
AMY GOODMAN: John Kiriakou’s supporters say he was unfairly targeted in the Obama administration’s crackdown on government whistleblowers. Shortly after his release last week, the Government Accountability Project’s Jesselyn Radack issued a statement, saying, quote, “Kiriakou is a dedicated public servant who became a political prisoner because he brought to light one of the darkest chapters in American history: the CIA’s ineffective, immoral and illegal torture program. … [I]t is a welcome development that Kiriakou can serve the rest of his sentence at home with his family,” she wrote.
Meanwhile, the federal prosecutor in the case, Neil MacBride, has defended the government’s handling of the case. He spoke after Kiriakou’s sentencing in January of 2013.
NEIL MacBRIDE: As the judge just said in court, today’s sentence should be a reminder to every individual who works for the government, who comes into the possession of closely held, sensitive information regarding the national defense or the identity of a covert agent, that it is critical that that information remain secure and not spill out into the public domain or be shared with others who don’t have authorized access to it.
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Arlington, Virginia, where we’re joined by John Kiriakou. Again, he remains under house arrest as he completes his sentence. He spent 14 years at the CIA as an analyst and case officer. In 2002, he led the team that found Abu Zubaydah, a high-ranking member of al-Qaeda. He is a father of five. In 2010, Kiriakou published a memoir titled Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror.
John Kiriakou, welcome back to Democracy Now! How does it feel to be out of prison?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Utterly liberating. I actually had trouble falling asleep the first night home because I had grown so used to my bare mattress on a steel slab and the jingling of keys all night long. But I’ve finally adapted.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re not quite free yet, though, right, John? How long did you serve in jail?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: No.
AMY GOODMAN: And how long do you have under house arrest?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: I served 23 months in a low-security federal prison in Pennsylvania. I have three months of house arrest. And then, following house arrest, I am under what’s called supervised release, which is really probation, for another three years.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about why you believe you were jailed.
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Oh, I am absolutely convinced, Amy, that I was jailed because of the torture debate. People leak information in Washington all the time, whether it’s on purpose or inadvertent. We’ve seen—we’ve seen people like former CIA Director Leon Panetta, former CIA Director General Petraeus, leaking classified information with impunity. And that has convinced me that I’m right when I say that my case was never about leaking. My case was about blowing the whistle on torture.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to turn to former Virginia Democratic Congressman Jim Moran, who took to the floor of the House of Representatives last year and called for President Obama to pardon you. Moran called you an “American hero” and a “whistleblower.” He said, quote, “Kiriakou deserves a presidential pardon so his record can be cleared, just as this country is trying to heal from a dark chapter in its history.” What is your response to that? You didn’t get that pardon, at least as of yet.
JOHN KIRIAKOU: No. No, I am deeply, deeply grateful for the work that Congressman Moran did. My only regret is that he’s retired now. He’s no longer in Congress. But he’s a very upstanding, very progressive and very decent man. I really appreciated his help. I’ve not formally asked for a pardon, and I probably won’t this year. But there seems to be some support growing for it. I’m always on the lookout for congressional support. And I hope that I can develop that through 2015 and then maybe go to the president sometime next year and ask for a pardon.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break, and then we’re going to go back in time and talk about what you did, talk about the fact that you’re the only official related to the torture program, you blowing the whistle on torture, who has been jailed. We’re talking to John Kiriakou, who spent 14 years at the CIA as an analyst and case officer, exposed the Bush-era torture program, became the only official jailed in connection with it. We’ll be back with him at his home under house arrest in a moment.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re spending the hour with John Kiriakou, under house arrest right now at his home in Arlington, Virginia, but he is out of jail. He spent 14 years at the CIA as an analyst and a case officer, exposed the Bush-era torture program, became the only official jailed in connection with it. In 2007, he became the first CIA official to publicly confirm the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding; in January 2013, sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison after pleading guilty to confirming the identity of a covert officer to a reporter, who didn’t publish it. Let’s go back in time to your experience with Abu Zubaydah, John Kiriakou. How did you come to meet him?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: I was the leader of a CIA group in Pakistan that conducted a series of 14 raids on suspected al-Qaeda safe houses around the central part of the country. And Abu Zubaydah happened to be in one of the houses that we raided. And after something of a gun battle, we captured him.
AMY GOODMAN: So, since your interview in 2007, it’s become known that Zubaydah was waterboarded at least 83 times and that he provided no useful information as a result. He remains imprisoned at Guantánamo without charge. His name appears more than a thousand times in the Senate report on torture that was released in December. Talk about what you know happened to him.
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Sure. Abu Zubaydah was shot three times while being captured, shot by Pakistani authorities—once in the thigh, once in the groin and once in the stomach—with an AK-47. He was very gravely wounded. And so, when he was rendered, when he was taken away from Pakistan, he was sent to a secret location, and the CIA sent a trauma surgeon from Johns Hopkins University Medical Center to this secret location to give him medical assistance. He underwent surgery. For some reason, he even had an eye removed. I’m not sure why that happened, but we know that now to be the case. And over the course of the next several months, he recovered from his gunshot wounds.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about how you met him.
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Sure. When we first captured him, we took him to a hospital, a military hospital in Pakistan. He had lost so much blood, we needed to transfuse him. And he was initially in a coma. He came out of the coma a couple of times, and we were able, at first, to just exchange an initial comment, later on, in the next couple of days, to have short conversations. For example, when he first came out of his coma, he asked me for a glass of red wine. He was delirious. Later in the evening, he asked me if I would take the pillow and smother him. And then, the next day, we talked about poetry. We talked about Islam. We talked about the fact that he had never supported the attacks on the United States. He wanted to attack Israel.
AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what you learned happened to him from there.
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Well, he was sent from Pakistan to this secret location. And once he was healthy enough to withstand interrogation, a group of CIA interrogators—I’m sorry, a group of FBI interrogators interviewed him, appeared to have been successful in gathering some information, but then were replaced by CIA interrogators, that we’ve now learned were untrained, unprepared, and was subjected to waterboarding in addition to other torture techniques, placed into a cage. He had a fear of bugs, so they put him in a small box and put bugs in the box with him. He was subject to a cold cell, to lights on 24 hours a day, booming music so that he couldn’t sleep. There were several different things that the CIA did to him.
AMY GOODMAN: And your response to that?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Torture is wrong under any circumstances. You know, we know from the Second World War, when the Justice Department was interrogating Nazi war criminals, we know that the establishment of a rapport, the establishment of a relationship with someone, results in actionable information, if that prisoner has actionable information which he’s willing to give. That wasn’t the case with Abu Zubaydah. He was beaten. He was waterboarded. He was subject to sleep deprivation. He had ice water poured on him in a 50-degree cell every several hours. The man just simply didn’t have any information to give.
AMY GOODMAN: When did you learn that? And when, John, did you decide to go public with this, to reveal this information?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: I learned initially that he had been waterboarded in the summer of 2002, at the end of the summer of 2002. And as I said in the 2007 interview with Brian Ross, I believed what the CIA was telling us, that he was being waterboarded, it was working, and we were gathering important, actionable intelligence that was saving American lives. It wasn’t until something like 2005 or 2006 that we realized that that just simply wasn’t true—he wasn’t producing any information—and that these techniques were horrific.
It was in 2007, Amy, that I decided to go public. President Bush said at the time, categorically, “We do not torture prisoners. We are not waterboarding.” And I knew that that was a lie. And he made it seem as though this was a rogue CIA officer who decided to pour water on people’s faces. And that simply wasn’t true. Torture—the entire torture program was approved by the president himself, and it was a very carefully planned-out program. So to say that it was rogue, it was just a bald-faced lie to the American people.
AMY GOODMAN: Late last year, graphic new details of the post-9/11 U.S. torture program came to light when the Senate Intelligence Committee released the 500-page summary of its investigation into the CIA. The report concluded the intelligence agency failed to disrupt a single plot despite torturing al-Qaeda and other captives in secret prisons worldwide from 2002 and 2006. Maybe you watched this from prison, John Kiriakou—
JOHN KIRIAKOU: I did, indeed.
AMY GOODMAN: —but this is Senator Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, outlining the report’s key findings.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN: First, the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques were not an effective way to gather intelligence information. Second, the CIA provided extensive amounts of inaccurate information about the operation of the program and its effectiveness to the White House, the Department of Justice, Congress, the CIA inspector general, the media and the American public. Third, CIA’s management of the program was inadequate and deeply flawed. And fourth, the CIA program was far more brutal than people were led to believe.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you remember, when you heard this report in jail, where you were? I assume you watched Dianne Feinstein on the prison TV. And your thoughts about it?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: I did, indeed. I was sitting in the Central One Unit TV room watching it with bated breath. Let me say that Senator Feinstein is one of the CIA’s leading supporters on Capitol Hill. So for Dianne Feinstein to come out with a report as critical as this report was just shows you how wrongheaded the CIA torture program was.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the report comes out, and it details a list of torture methods used on prisoners—waterboarding, sexual abuse with broomsticks, what they call rectal feeding or rectal hydration. Prisoners were threatened with buzzing power drills. Some captives were deprived of sleep for up to 180 hours, at times with their hands shackled above their heads. The torture carried out at black sites in Afghanistan, Lithuania, Romania, Poland, Thailand, secret site at Guantánamo Naval Base known as Strawberry Fields. As this unveiled, it’s only you who went to jail around these issues. Your thoughts on this?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: I feel like I live in the Twilight Zone sometimes. When the report came out, like most other Americans, I was absolutely shocked and appalled at some of the details. Even inside the CIA, we didn’t know anything about rectal hydration—with hummus, no less—with sexual abuse or sexual assault using broomsticks. I mean, people didn’t even talk about those kinds of things in the hallway, so I was absolutely shocked hearing it.
This goes back to a point I made in 2013 on this wonderful program: We need to prosecute some of these cases. I understand that reasonable people can agree to disagree on whether or not case officers who really believed they were carrying out a legal activity should be prosecuted. I understand that. But what about case officers who took the law into their own hands or who flouted the law and raped prisoners with broomsticks or carried out rectal hydration with hummus? Those were not approved interrogation techniques. Why aren’t those officers being prosecuted? I think, at the very least, that’s where we should start the prosecutions.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play for you comments President Obama made in 2009 about whether CIA officials involved in torture should be prosecuted. He appeared on the ABC News program This Week.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I don’t believe that anybody is above the law. On the other hand, I also have a belief that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards. And part of my job is to make sure that—for example, at the CIA, you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend all their time looking over their shoulders and lawyering.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So, no 9/11 Commission with independent subpoena power?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: You know, we have not made final decisions, but my instinct is for us to focus on how do we make sure that, moving forward, we are doing the right thing.
AMY GOODMAN: That was President Obama right after he became president in 2009. Right after, he signed, well, what? One of his first executive orders, to close Guantánamo. Your thoughts on what he just said—
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —to George Stephanopoulos?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Sure. I understand that President Obama is not going to seek the prosecution of the CIA leaders who carried out the torture, the case officers involved in the day-to-day torture program. I understand that. The lawyers at the Office of Legal Counsel at the Justice Department, I understand. No problem. But what about the CIA officers who directly violated the law, who carried out interrogations that resulted in death? What about the torturers of Hassan Ghul? Hassan Ghul was killed during an interrogation session.
AMY GOODMAN: In Afghanistan.
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Those people should not be above the law. Correct, in Afghanistan. Those people should not be above the law. They committed crimes, whether in the United States or overseas. And those people should be prosecuted.
AMY GOODMAN: Instead, you were the only one who went to prison. Would you do what you did again, John?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: As crazy as it sounds, yes, I would. I would do it all over again. What has happened since that 2007 ABC News interview is that torture has been banned in the United States. It is no longer a part of U.S. government policy. And I’m proud to have played a role in that. If that cost me 23 months of my life, well, you know what? It was worth it.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to NBC’s Meet the Press in December, after the Senate torture report was released, former Vice President Dick Cheney said he would do it all again.
DICK CHENEY: I’m more concerned with bad guys who got out and were released than I am with a few that in fact were innocent.
CHUCK TODD: Twenty-five percent of the detainees, though. Twenty-five percent turned out not to have—turned out to be innocent. They were—
DICK CHENEY: So, where are you going to draw the line, Chuck? How are you going to know?
CHUCK TODD: Well, I’m asking you.
DICK CHENEY: I’m saying—
CHUCK TODD: Is that too high? Is that—you’re OK with that margin for error?
DICK CHENEY: I have no problem as long as we achieve our objective.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Dick Cheney on Meet the Press with Chuck Todd. John Kiriakou, your thoughts? Should Vice President Cheney be tried?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: My own personal belief is, yes, sure, he should. But I think there’s another point to be made here. We’ve seen Vice President Cheney, we’ve seen former CIA directors, several of them, former senior CIA officers go on the network news programs and defend, defend, defend their actions during the torture regime. The reason that they’re doing that is because torture is their legacy. When their obituaries are written, those obituaries are going to say that they were instrumental in the torture program. And the only thing they can do at this point to save their reputations is to keep repeating this lie that torture worked and hope that the American people eventually believe it.
AMY GOODMAN: What are your thoughts today on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden? What would you advise him?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: I think Ed Snowden is a national hero. I think Ed Snowden gave us information on government illegality that we otherwise would never have had. I regret that the federal government has revoked his passport and has caused him to be stuck in Russia, but I think that he did a very courageous thing. I’m not sure I would have released all of the information that he released, because, in some cases, I want NSA to be spying on foreign governments and foreign leaders. That’s what NSA does; that’s what they’re supposed to do. I want the U.S. government to have a leg up, for example, in trade negotiations or defense contracting or whatever it is. But in terms of the illegality that Ed Snowden revealed, I think he did a great national service.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2013, Edward Snowden commented on the Obama administration’s treatment of whistleblowers who preceded him. He said, quote, “Binney, Drake, Kiriakou, and Manning are all examples of how overly-harsh responses to public-interest whistle-blowing only escalate the scale, scope, and skill involved in future disclosures. Citizens with a conscience are not going to ignore wrong-doing simply because they’ll be destroyed for it: the conscience forbids it. Instead, these draconian responses simply build better whistleblowers. If the Obama administration responds with an even harsher hand against me, they can be assured that they’ll soon find themselves facing an equally harsh public response.” Again, those the words of Ed Snowden. Do you think Edward Snowden should come back to the United States, John Kiriakou?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: I do not, not under any circumstances. And I’ve said that both publicly and privately to him in a letter. I do not believe that he will get a fair trial in the United States, especially in the Eastern District of Virginia, where he’s being charged or where he has been charged. I think the deck is stacked against him, as it is against any whistleblower, and if the government has its way, Ed Snowden will never see the light of day.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read a comment made by the judge at your sentencing hearing, John. Judge Leonie Brinkema sentenced you to 30 months in prison back in January 2013, saying, quote, “This case is not a case about a whistleblower. It’s a case about a man who betrayed a very solemn trust, and that is a trust to keep the integrity of his agency intact and specifically to protect the identity of co-workers. … I think 30 months is, frankly, way too light, because the message has to be sent to every covert agent that when you leave the agency you can’t just start all of a sudden revealing the names of the people with whom you worked,” Judge Brinkema said. Your response?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Yes. Three months earlier, in the hearing in which I accepted the plea, Judge Brinkema said that 30 months was, quote, “fair”—what did she say? Now I’m forgetting it. She said it was “fair and appropriate.” And she compared my case to that of Scooter Libby, even though Scooter Libby never leaked the identity of Valerie Plame. When the courtroom was full of reporters three months later, that’s when she decided to get tough and say that 30 months wasn’t enough. Judge Brinkema had ample opportunity to sentence me to as much as 10 years, and she didn’t. She sentenced me to 30 months.
Now, with that said, we had trouble with Judge Brinkema’s rulings from the very beginning. Anytime we tried to introduce evidence of whistleblowing, it was denied; of government wrongdoing, denied; my own personal history in the CIA, where I won 12 exceptional performance awards, the Meritorious Honor Award, the Counterterrorism Service Medal, not admissible. And that’s what has led me to believe that there’s no way Ed Snowden is going to get a fair trial, and he shouldn’t come back to Virginia.
AMY GOODMAN: John Kiriakou, did you know the now notorious psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, who designed the government torture program at places like Guantánamo?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: No, I had never met them. When I was working in the CIA’s Counterterrorist Center, it was a very large room. We called it a cubicle farm. There were hundreds of people in this room. And I remember them arriving and taking offices, private offices, at the very back of the room, but I never had any personal contact with either Mitchell or Jessen.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think they should be prosecuted? Apparently, the government has decided not to?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Absolutely. The government has decided not to prosecute them, but I think if there are going to be prosecutions, those prosecutions should begin with Mitchell and Jessen. They were wholly unqualified for the bill of goods they sold the CIA, and they simply committed crimes overseas in the name of the U.S. government. I think they should be prosecuted for those crimes.
AMY GOODMAN: The issue of revealing the name of a covert agent, why did you think that was critical in telling the story of waterboarding?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Well, interestingly enough, the agent whose name I was convicted of releasing—and I did release it. I did tell this reporter this gentleman’s name. I didn’t actually volunteer it, I confirmed it. He had already had it. But the reporter was going to write an article saying that this man was instrumental in the torture program, and that wasn’t true. He was a good man. He had nothing to do with torture. He happened to be working in the rendition program. And I was trying to correct the record. This reporter wanted someone to interview about the program, asked if I could make an introduction. I said, “I don’t think he’ll talk to you. I think he’s probably retired by now. But he was not a part of the torture program.”
AMY GOODMAN: Did CIA officials or your co-workers, people in intelligence services, reach out to you either expressing their support for you or their condemnation?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Oh, yes, dozens and dozens of former colleagues have reached out to me over the last three years. The support has been really overwhelming from my former CIA colleagues. I can honestly tell you that I can count on one hand the number of CIA officers who have walked away from me, who have ended our friendships. And every single one of those, those five individuals, was instrumental in the torture program.
AMY GOODMAN: John Kiriakou, we’re going to break. When we come back, you wrote letters from Loretto, from the prison, and I want to talk about your time in the prison, your concerns about prisons, and how you were treated, how other prisoners were treated. We’re talking to John Kiriakou, who spent 14 years at the CIA as an analyst and case officer. He exposed the Bush-era torture program, became the only official jailed in connection with it. In 2007, he was the first CIA official to publicly confirm the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding; in January 2013, sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail after pleading guilty to confirming the identity of a covert officer to a reporter, who ended up not publishing it. John Kiriakou has also written his memoir; it’s called Reluctant Spy: My Secret Life in the CIA’s War on Terror. He was released from prison last week but remains under house arrest for three months. That’s where we’re talking to him, at his home in Arlington, Virginia. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “P.H.A.T.W.A.” by The Narcicyst, here on Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with this exclusive radio/television/web broadcast with John Kiriakou, who is at home under house arrest in Arlington, Virginia. He was a CIA analyst and case officer for 14 years. He exposed the Bush-era torture program, became the only official jailed in connection with it, exposed waterboarding in 2007. In January 2013, he was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. John, you were held at FCI Loretto in Pennsylvania, the federal correctional institution there. Can you talk about the letters you decided to write from there and what your life was like behind bars?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Sure. Before I went to prison, several friends of mine—Jesselyn Radack from the Government Accountability Project, Jane Hamsher from Firedoglake.com, Tom Drake formerly of the NSA, Dan Ellsberg—they mentioned that they thought I should write an open letter to my supporters once I got situated in prison, just to let them know how I was doing. And I thought that was a good idea. So, when I got to Loretto, February 28th, 2013, I allowed myself about six weeks to get situated. And I should add, I’ve always been a big fan of Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. And I had a copy with me in prison. I read it and reread it and reread it again. And I thought, “Well, I’ll structure it in the same way, and I’ll write it person to person. So, that’s what I did.
Much to my surprise—this was only supposed to go to about 600 people. Much to my surprise, it was picked up by The Huffington Post, and then, from Huffington Post, it went crazy—all the broadcast networks, half a dozen magazines—and it got about a million hits. And I realized that Americans really do want to know what it’s like inside prison. I should add, too, that FCI Loretto is no Club Fed. This is a real prison with rows and rows of concertina wire atop and astride large—or, I should say, high fences. This is a serious prison. There’s no golf course. There’s no movie theater. It’s like what you see on TV. So, I wanted to convey that. And the letters became so popular that I made them into a series. I think I did probably 17 or 18 of them by the time I left to come home.
AMY GOODMAN: John Kiriakou, you wrote, “People under the care of the medical unit at Loretto die with terrifying frequency.” Can you explain what would happen?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Sure. I’ll give you a couple of examples. A couple of days before I left to come home, I was in the medical unit giving blood for some blood tests, and another prisoner wheeled a third prisoner in in a wheelchair. This man was about 70 years old. He was obviously having a heart attack. He was crying. He was clutching his chest. And he said, “I’m having a heart attack.” Well, the woman who was helping me, who was drawing my blood, looked up at him and said, “Well, you’re just going to have to wait, because I’m the only person here, and you have to wait until somebody else comes in to work.” And that poor old man sat in that wheelchair in the midst of a heart attack until somebody else came to work, diagnosed him with a heart attack, and called an ambulance to take him to a local hospital. That kind of behavior is typical.
I’ll give you another example. There was a man who lived across the hall from the chapel. I worked in the chapel as an orderly. And this man complained routinely of back pain, severe back pain. Sometimes he would be hunched over. As the weeks passed, he had a cane, then he had a walker, then he’s in a wheelchair. I said, “My goodness, what is wrong with you?” He said, “My back is killing me, and they won’t take me to a hospital for a test.” So, finally, the chaplain intervened and said, “This guy’s condition is obviously deteriorating quickly. Please take him to a hospital for a test.” They finally took him to the local hospital. Stage IV cancer of the spine. He was dead in two weeks. And that’s really typical of the medical care in prison, not just in Loretto, but all over the Bureau of Prisons.
AMY GOODMAN: You wanted to be a—
JOHN KIRIAKOU: You have to—
AMY GOODMAN: —a GED instructor, John, in the prison?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: I’m sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: You wanted to be a GED instructor, but were told you had to be a janitor at the chapel?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: I did. Right. I have a master’s degree in legislative affairs, a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern studies, and I did my Ph.D. coursework at the University of Virginia in international relations. So I thought, “Well, I’ll make some good use of my time, and I’ll teach a GED class.” But when I volunteered, they told me, in not very nice language, “If we want you to teach an effing class, we’ll ask you to teach an effing class.” And so, I spent the next two years as a janitor in the chapel.
AMY GOODMAN: John Kiriakou, you write at the end of one of your letters [from] Loretto, “By the time you read this”—this was your last letter—”I’ll be home. Now the real work can begin—the struggle for human rights, civil liberties and prison reform. I can guarantee you that I am unbowed, unbroken, uninstitutionalized and ready to fight.” What does “uninstitutionalized” mean?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Well, uninstitutionalized means that I never allowed the prison officials in Loretto to cow me. I got into a dispute with a lieutenant who had a reputation as being a bully, really a bully and a provocateur. And he shouted at me one day, “You need to start acting more like an inmate!” And I said, “And what is that supposed to mean? Should I get a tattoo on my face? Should I steal food from the cafeteria to sell to people? If it means going like this and saying, 'Yes, sir. No, sir. Sorry, sir,' that’s never going to happen. Never.” I said, “Respect is two ways. You get respect when you give respect. And I don’t respect you.” And that’s the attitude that I maintained throughout my two years in prison.
AMY GOODMAN: What most surprised you there, John?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: I was really surprised how prisoners are treated as—as not—not treated as human beings. They’re treated as somehow subhuman, people not to be respected, people about whose health we should not be concerned, people who don’t deserve a fair hearing. It’s warehousing, and it’s warehousing being overseen by flunkies and dropouts from the local police academy or people who couldn’t cut it in the military. They’re the people running our lives in prison.
AMY GOODMAN: John Kiriakou, going back to the issue you exposed, the issue of waterboarding and torture, how did the Obama administration continue these programs? Or did they?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: I don’t think they did. There is one thing that the Obama administration has continued, and really has perfected it, compared to what the Bush administration did. And that’s drone strikes. President Obama has killed far more people with drone strikes than President Bush ever did.
AMY GOODMAN: And the issue of Greece? You’re a Greek American. In fact, you did some of your CIA work in Greece. Can you talk about what you did there and how you feel about what’s happened today with the rise of Syriza, the prime minister being the head of Syriza?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Sure. I served in Greece for a couple of years, going back and forth, really, between headquarters and Greece. I was working on terrorism issues. But at the time—and this kind of seems quaint now—it was Euroterrorism, communist terrorism, specifically the Revolutionary Organization 17 November. I had a great experience in Greece. It’s a great country.
But the Greeks have had a tough time for the last—especially for the last seven years or so. The recession has hit Greece probably harder than any other country in western Europe, certainly harder than in the United States. And part of the problem was, you had two governing parties—PASOK and Neo Demokratia, New Democracy—that were really corrupted by the system. And now, Syriza, which is a young, new, populist party, has won a sweeping victory in the recent parliamentary elections, falling only two seats short of an absolute majority, which in Greece is really an incredible feat.
Like most Greek Americans, I’m very excited about this. I think it was time for a change. It was time for a populist regime in Greece, a leftist populist regime. And I think that under Alexis Tsipras’s leadership, I think the country may come out of its recession. Now, with that said, there’s going to have to be some give from the troika in terms of aid and assistance to Greece. The Greek people have suffered terribly. Suicides are up something like 300 percent. There’s a brain drain, where doctors, lawyers, engineers are moving to the United States or Europe or Australia. And that has to come to an end. The Greeks have to stay in Greece and try to rebuild their country. But I think that can be done under Syriza. I’m very excited about it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, finally, as we come to an end of this conversation, from your home, under house arrest in Arlington, Virginia, your family—what happened to your wife after you were convicted and sentenced? She also worked at the agency, is that right? And also you have five children.
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Yes, that’s right, I have five children. My wife was a highly decorated, highly respected CIA officer. She was really going places, and far smarter and more accomplished than I ever was. But she was fired the day that I was arrested, only because she was related to me. And she was out of work for 10 months before finding work finally here inside the Beltway at one of the government contractors, where she’s really done beautifully, and they love her. But she was asked to leave just because she’s married to me. It made raising five children very difficult.
AMY GOODMAN: And how are your kids, now that you’ve come home?
JOHN KIRIAKOU: Oh, great. It’s wonderful. Actually, my wife and I haven’t had a night alone together since I got home. It’s, you know, three—there are three little children in the bed with us all night long. And there’s lots of hugging and storytelling and book reading. And it’s been great. They’re happy to see me home.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, John Kiriakou, I want to thank you for being with us, again, spent 14 years as a CIA analyst and case officer, exposed the Bush-era torture program, became the only official jailed in connection with it, in 2007 first publicly confirmed the use of waterboarding.